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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

When Should School Leaders Address Controversies Like the Israel-Hamas War?

Their mantle is an educational one
By Rick Hess — November 13, 2023 10 min read
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In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine some of the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us.

Today’s topic is when and how school leaders should address tragedies, controversies, and other world events—as in the case of Hamas’ attack on Israel and the ensuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rick

Rick: Last month, when Hamas terrorists launched their barbaric assault on Israel, it posed a challenge for educational leaders who’ve become accustomed to weighing in on high-profile events. Especially in higher education, recent years have brought a drumbeat of moralizing missives—regarding Michael Brown and George Floyd; Donald Trump; various horrific mass-shooter incidents; the assault on the Capitol; Supreme Court decisions overturning Roe v. Wade, ending race-conscious college admissions, and protecting the conscience rights of website designers; and much more.

These statements usually make it very clear that one side (invariably the progressive one) is in the right. It wasn’t until Hamas murdered, tortured, burned, raped, and kidnaped 1,400 Israeli civilians that these same leaders discovered moral complexity, fearing that “taking sides” might offend some members of their community. (In the aftermath, even as campuses grew increasingly nasty, college leaders got much well-deserved grief for their feckless inconstancy.)

In K–12, school and system leaders have engaged in less of this than their college counterparts and have done it with less gusto—but less can still be a fair bit.

Observing all of this, I’ve two complementary thoughts. The first is puzzlement that these leaders have deemed it so easy to know who is on the side of the angels when it comes to abortion, “anti-racism,” race-conscious policies, or how to resolve the tensions between postmodern and traditional notions of sex and gender. I’m troubled by the mindset of leaders who seem convinced that these debates are simple morality plays and who fail to appreciate that issuing politicized statements serves to both stifle healthy discourse and make lots of students and educators feel unwelcome and unsafe.

The second thought is that I just don’t understand why K–12 or college leaders have chosen to wade into this morass. In a nation flooded by performative posturing, we need places committed to cultivating discussion, promoting understanding, and helping sort fact from fiction. Schools and colleges can provide that. Educators can do that work. Why would educational leaders instead opt to be just one more voice in a like-minded echo chamber? After all, on most of these issues, it’s not obvious that school or college leaders have any particular expertise, insight, or moral authority.

What do you think, Jal? Am I being too harsh? Curious to hear your take.

Jal: Even by our standards, Rick, this is a complex topic!

I think, in essence, the question is about what role schools or universities should play in society. Let’s consider at least four possible roles: as places that help people learn to think, as defenders of free speech, in loco parentis, and as societal institutions that share responsibility for civic leadership.

The first function—helping people learn to understand issues with complexity, nuance, and context—is a clearly educative function. There are not two sides to the Palestinian-Israel conflict: There are many, many different truths that are simultaneously true. Hamas is a terrorist organization that committed a terrible atrocity; and Israel has forced the Gaza Strip to live under a blockade that has inflicted enormous suffering on the Palestinian people; and Israel has a right to defend itself; and Israel’s ground attack is unconscionably killing many innocent civilians indiscriminately; and Hamas hides among civilians, which means Israel has few good military options. You could disagree with aspects of the previous sentence, but these are the kinds of complexities that I think we would want students to think through, and it would promote clearly educational goals such as understanding history and developing multiperspectival thinking.

The second function is protecting a marketplace of ideas. We have seen university leaders—perhaps a little belatedly, but they have done it—say that student groups and individual professors can say what they want: Those views don’t represent the university, and they may have consequences for the people who say them (i.e., employers may not want to hire them), but as a matter of policy, universities should protect speech. There may be some exceptions (such as if groups explicitly and specifically call for violence), but the distinctive role of universities in societies is to promote a diversity of viewpoints, and so they should err on the side of more speech rather than less. If this means they lose donations, that is part of the cost of doing business as a university. Secondary schools similarly should make sure that a variety of views are protected; doing so is arguably more critical for younger students who will feel more pressure to conform to dominant views.

A third function is the in loco parentis idea. The idea here is that universities and schools are essentially like a home away from home for students, and thus they have some responsibility to create a culture of care, inclusion, and belonging. To this end, since many colleges and schools have both Jewish and Palestinian students, to stay silent would be to abdicate this function and essentially say to students, “We know that world-shaking events are going on that are affecting you, but we are choosing not to say anything about them.” Thus, while it may seem mealy-mouthed and performative, a statement that condemns terrorism, speaks for peace, and expresses sympathy for innocent victims who are both Israeli and Palestinian signals to students that they are part of an institution that is aware of world events and cares about how they are feeling. These values of inclusion and community are particularly important when linked to the previous idea of the marketplace of ideas; holding both values is what allows for civil discourse.

The fourth and final function is universities and schools playing a civic role and taking a stand on important issues of the day. Here is where I think your critique is the most justified: It is true that universities sometimes assume the progressivism of their faculty reflects the progressivism of the student body—and therefore, they may alienate swaths of their students with stands they take. As such, I think universities should play this role fairly sparingly, recognizing that trying to exercise this kind of moral authority will necessarily come with some significant costs as well as benefits. There are moments when they should do it—the civil rights movement comes to mind—but they should take this step rarely and mostly avoid taking institutional positions that could be seen as partisan.

Rick: Thanks. I find that to be a thoughtful, useful framing. And you’re certainly right that the in loco parentis role may sometimes require educators to acknowledge the world outside their bubble. In the current instance, I quite like your formulation: Condemn terrorism, speak for peace, and express sympathy for all. Of course, what we saw last month was too many leaders who spoke up but either forgot to condemn the terrorism or did so in only the most cursory of terms.

That failure points, I think, to the larger problem with school or college leaders trying to serve as moral avatars. They’re educators, not elected officials or religious leaders, and they have not been administered either a democratic or religious sacrament. Their mantle is an educational one, and that means, as you suggest, teaching about “complexity, nuance, and context.”

The problem is that the commitment to “complexity, nuance, and context” seems remarkably inconstant. For instance, I can’t recall a single statement on George Floyd in 2020 that acknowledged the need for effective law enforcement, took the time to point out that most police officers are responsible, raised questions about the meaning and actual extent of “systemic racism,” reminded listeners that there are profound grounds for questioning the assertions of “anti-racist” dogma, or the like. Instead, the statements were a chorus of simple-minded declarations endorsing Black Lives Matter, “anti-racist” doctrine, and the certainty that America is “systemically racist.”

We saw the same thing in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on abortion and race-based admissions preferences. Educational leaders flatly denounced and lamented the race-based decision, even as polling suggested that most Americans welcomed the court’s ruling because they regarded the practice as immoral and unconstitutional. On abortion, college presidents—even in states where the sentiment is clearly pro-life—have tended to treat any and all efforts to protect fetal life as cartoon villainy out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Not much appreciation for complexity, nuance, or context in any of this.

It was telling that school and college leaders have only discovered complexity, nuance, and context in the aftermath of Hamas’ terrorist assault. The fact that educational leaders waffled last month mostly goes to show how uncomfortable they are when compelled to speak up on an issue that risks putting them crosswise with progressive sentiment.

If I thought educational leaders were willing and able to consistently educate their school communities regarding complexity, nuance, and context when it came to worldly events, that’d be one thing. But experience has taught me they’re not actually inclined to view these developments as teachable moments. I don’t think many feel comfortable doing that nor that many have the capacity to. Consequently, I think they’re well advised to embrace the humility of the old adage: Less is more.

Jal: Part of what is interesting to me here are the ways in which everyone feels like they are in the minority. I’m reminded of the old saw that Harvey Mansfield’s students couldn’t get hired in political science departments, so they found jobs making foreign policy in the Bush administration. I think the past few years have seen a particularly unhealthy dynamic: The actual world, during the Trump presidency, was lurching in a direction where the president of the United States was a serial abuser of women and was openly endorsing racist and xenophobic views. At the same time, campuses and many schools in more liberal areas—in part in reaction to those events—were moving leftward and increasingly embracing anti-racism and sidelining conservative views. Those on the left felt like the actual world had gone off the rails, while conservatives felt the same way about campuses and schools. Each fueled the other in a kind of vicious cycle of extremism.

How can we get out of this? I don’t have much hope for the current instantiation of the Republican Party to move away from their MAGA base, so it’s up to university and school leaders to try to model the multiple virtues that our democracy needs. They should both encourage students to take stands on issues that they see as important and try to help students develop more complexity in their thinking. They might ask students to realize that these goals are sometimes in tension—that movements often require a certain kind of clarity and moral force that seeing complexity and nuance sometimes dulls. But perhaps students can land in an even richer place, where they are still able to take a stand, but in a way that incorporates rather than rejects such complexity. That will require universities to model, to hold space for multiple views, and to educate—in the most demanding sense of the word.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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